Finding God

The following is a story shared with me by reader, Steve Slocum. His story is similar to many of us: ostracism, family trauma, the reinvention of belief. And a long, hard path to healing. I am grateful for his willingness to share his story here.

Please allow me to allow Steve to introduce himself:

Steve Slocum is the author of “Why Do They Hate Us? Making Peace with the Muslim World” (To be released March, 2019, www.whydotheyhateus.org). He is the founder and executive director of Salaam a nonprofit with the mission of creating friendship and mutual understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. Steve is a frequent speaker at churches, conferences, and civic groups.

 

Steve’s story:

I started my freefall into the mystical universe of religion when I was seventeen years old. On campus at the University of Arizona for my freshman year as a mechanical engineering student, I was captivated by the street preachers and began attending daily Bible studies in the grassy area outside of the student union. Like a dry sponge, I soaked up the uncompromising teachings of Jesus about forsaking all to follow him and loving God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind. I found in this radical church group both a satisfaction for the spiritual hunger which had been growing inside of me, and the approval that I had missed out on growing up. It was a bad combination. I fell deep.

I checked out from my family of origin and disappeared for two years into a small Bible school in the Midwest. In 1992, with a wife and three kids, I took my whole family to the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan to be missionaries to the Muslim world. The more extreme I became, the more approval I received from the church – and I craved the toxicity like a drug. At home, my marriage was terrible. We hated each other. But as a missionary, I got my first hit of Christian heroin. I was leading an exploding church movement of Muslim background believers. The Christian world took notice. I spoke at conferences, gave interviews, and was featured in a mission’s film. I was a rock star, mainlining on Christian fame.  I loved my life. There was just that nagging thing about my failing marriage.

Even though I was a true believer, I began imperceptibly taking my first steps away from the church. With Kazakhs coming to faith by the hundreds, I became concerned about imparting to them an Americanized faith – a faith tainted from its original purity. I began a fresh reading of the New Testament and performed a thorough sweep of my theology and practices. I wanted to eliminate anything skewed by my American culture.  As my quest continued, I wasn’t fully able to intellectually process my growing awareness of just how much of my understanding was based on the overlay of an American cultural grid on the New Testament passages. I just felt a growing uneasiness and a desire to set the Kazakh believers free to create their own practice.

My passion for allowing the Kazakhs to create their own expression within the context of their own culture led to disagreements with the missionary team leader, who was also the senior pastor of the church there. I ultimately decided that the disagreements were too major, and that I should leave the church and the ministry team. Within a week after telling the senior pastor about my decision, he openly shared specific details about my marital difficulties with the entire church – things that we had privately confided in him – and announced our excommunication. All members and coworkers were forbidden from visiting us. And none did.

At this time, my son was a high school student in the international school there. His teacher, also a member of the ministry team, was instructed by the senior pastor to bear down on my son in order to get him kicked out of the school. This did irreparable damage to his psyche. My son sank into a depression and never recovered. A few years after returning to the United States, he committed suicide.

My faith was coming apart like a rotating planet with the gravity turned off.  I started to realize that the concept of being “born again” was bogus. People who claim to exclusively possess the indwelling Holy Spirit act just the same as the people who don’t.  Myself, included. If we have God living in us, and others don’t, one would expect that we might be a little different, a LOT different.

I tried to hold onto my faith, but the final straw came when I chose to end my marriage. I found it strange that, though none of my Christian leaders and friends had lived a day in my shoes nor would stand before God to answer for me, they all knew that it was categorically sinful for me to end my failed marriage. I realized that they, and I, had been looking at the New Testament as a new Old Testament. Just a bunch of laws and rules. Nothing about the spirit of it.

Back home, I continued to go to church for the sake of my two daughters, but the fabric of the church had changed since we had left more than five years earlier. Now all the sermons seemed to be about the evils of homosexuality and abortion, the need to protect our families from our evil culture, and the need to vote Republican. And this was in 1999.

I left and never looked back.

With a still-forming understanding of God and the meaning of my life, a few things have become a little clearer. I believe now in maximizing my experience in this life, and finding God in her/his creation all around me. Some of the things that help me do that are nurturing the bonds of love in my family connections, deep friendships, and vulnerable communication. Realizing deep and lasting change in my own life and continual growth, absorbing natural beauty, and the arts with all my senses, and surfing.

 

slocum picslocum book pic.png

 

Peace Be With You

My new husband goes to a nice little community church. He would never pressure me to go along, but I could tell he wanted to introduce me to his friends there. How bad could it be? Hubby isn’t religious, so the church can’t be too dogmatic. He goes to remember his mother and to see people he cares about. I hadn’t stepped foot in a church service in decades, but I’m not scared of them. I strive to be open-minded, not judge-y or hard-nosed. That’s what I never liked about churches in the first place.

I can handle it. Right? Oy.

To be fair, this church is friendly. I was welcomed warmly. People of all stripes are welcomed here, which is as it should be. I can clearly see the value of gathering together to show gratitude, to participate in peaceful rituals and to sing, combined with a sense of working for the greater good. Members get together to hike and knit and eat. These activities bring a wonderful sense of belonging and contribute to the community at large in valuable ways. Loveliness.

What surprised me was the familiarity of the messages printed on the service sheet. Crucifixion, condemnation of the “wicked,” rapture, virgin birth, creationism, a lesson on finding a capable wife to run your household-wait wtf really?, believers shall prosper but others will not. Us and them, body and blood, sacrifice, sanctification, holy spirit, almighty father, Jesus Christ, lord god holy, holy, holy. What was I expecting? Church is still church.

My skin crawled as the congregation chanted prayers in unison. My head pounded as I tried to reconcile the words on the page with the truly lovely people surrounding me. Do they hear the underlying messages of the words they are speaking? How can they say words out loud without thinking about their meaning? Or do they believe?

I couldn’t do it. I fled.

Out the back and down the steps, I found the bathroom and then followed my nose to a full, unguarded coffee pot. I took (stole) a cup and a handful of creamers. As I gently pushed the church door open and eased it shut behind me, I was met with a face-full of sunshine and fresh morning breeze. First fall leaves skittered down the quiet street as I settled onto a rickety wooden bench tucked in the weeds of an overgrown patio. Steamy sweet coffee warmth filled my nose. Why can’t this be church?

Tension left my body. I will never escape my literal mind. The hellfire trauma of my childhood is best left undisturbed. My very much smarter than me husband goes to church because he has always gone, takes what he needs and leaves the rest. I admire his ability to do so, but I cannot join him there.

After church we got tacos and took the dog for a hike in the woods where we saw some amazing wild mushrooms and a turtle. All is well with my soul.

woods.jpg

 

 

 

WHOOP! an announcement

Hey, Hey! I just signed a publishing contract. My memoir, The Uncomfortable Confessions of a Preacher’s Kid, will be out on April 4, 2019. I am THRILLED, to say the least.

My heart is full of gratitude for this journey and for all of you who have read along and reached out. I have a hell of a lot of work to do between now and then, so if anyone wants to write a guest blog for me, shoot me a message.* There’s a free book in it for you!

This is the only known picture in existence of my happy dance:

P1177725.jpg

*I’m serious about the guest blog offer. I am open to posting deconversion stories of others.

Girls Walks Out of a Bar, a memoir

Big hard questions are making my head spin. Why is it that the importance of the separation of church and state isn’t discussed all the time, loudly? Where is the discussion of balance between the fundamental right of religious freedom and protecting children from the zealotry of their parents? When does religious freedom turn into abuse? Where is the line? How do we talk about this stuff and not end up fighting about politics?

These questions give me brain buzz and I have no answers, SO how ’bout a book review, instead?

YES.

Girl Walks Out of a Bar by Lisa F. Smith is the current favorite on my nightstand. I heard Lisa speak at the Hippocampus Writers Conference a few weeks ago and knew I wanted to read anything she had written.  Turns out her book is a memoir about her addiction to alcohol and cocaine while holding down a job as a high rolling NYC attorney in a big fat law firm overlooking Times Square. No easy task. She managed to hide her struggles not only at work, but from her closest friends and family. Her honest portrayal of that grim reality is gripping, horrifying, messy. She does not spare the reader, which is why I like her.

Do we ever really know what is going on with those around us?

There is a moment in the book when she blurts out to her friends, “I think I’m an alcoholic.” They are at a party, as usual. Everyone is drinking, as usual. Her words are met with resistance.

No one asks, “What makes you think so?” or “How can I help?”

Her admission is met with denial by them all, except for the one guy who wouldn’t meet her eyes. I bet that guy agreed and didn’t want to say it or maybe he was thinking, me too. The other friends… hmmm… they didn’t want to hear it? Perhaps their own fear of having to change overcame a desire to reach out. Maybe they were thinking, you can’t be an alcoholic because that means I am too.

Who knows? Lisa doesn’t blame her friends or try to explain their reactions, but left the scene hanging to replay in my head.

Happy ending! Lisa gets help, kicks her habits and is now a sobriety speaker to the legal community, where addiction struggles are rampant. Her courage to reach out for help, risking her career and reputation cannot be overestimated. Everything was at stake. She did it and I am proud of her and for her, even though she is technically a total stranger.

I highly recommend Lisa’s book and personal presentations, as well.  She can be found on Twitter @girlwalksout. No one asked me to write a review, by the way. I really do love this book.

As for the other stuff, maybe we can help each other along the twisted path if we pay attention, reach out in love and acceptance instead of fear and resistance. What if we aren’t afraid to be curious and ask an honest question or two and then listen to the answers? What’s the worst that could happen?

gwo

 

Isolation

I’m thinking about isolation.  Not what you do on a Sunday morning? Just me?

Several recent conversations with my sisters and my mother have reminded me how isolated we all were from each other in years past.  The stage was set within our family for absolute obedience and we were a perfect storm of noncommunication.

Firstly, the cult of Pentecostalism required isolation from the world in general, effectively taking away any context for normality.  Intrinsic to that religious culture is the submission of women to men.  Women cannot hold positions of power or have a public voice.  Their submission must be evident in behavior and appearance.

But you know that.

Add in an ambitious, power-hungry, sexually frustrated narcissist on a mission from God with a public persona to protect and we have a family of women who were not allowed to talk to each other.  Not because we didn’t want to, but because we were forbidden and didn’t know how.

When crises came around, we were already in a state of silence.  By the time my teenage fallopian tube exploded (see Close Call for the story) and I was near death, we were all perfectly trained. All Dad had to say was do not speak and we didn’t.  Our silence went far beyond lying to church people who would judge him for having a wayward daughter.  He didn’t have to tell me not to speak.  I hadn’t spoken out loud in my family for years and was not about to start.

Mom knew I was sick but was not allowed to visit me in the hospital, nor to comfort me afterward.  Dad told my sister that Mom didn’t know what happened to me and not to tell her, so she didn’t.  My sister was the only person who spoke to me during my six weeks of recovery following surgery.  I sat home alone with no one to blame but myself. My other sister was told nothing at all.

Silence filled our home, the air too thick to breathe. Not one word was spoken between mother and daughters nor sister to sister about the fact that one of us had a tragic, terrifying, near-death experience.

Thirty-ish years later, with the threat of Dad’s wrath long gone, we talk.  Now we know what we were forced to deny.  Now we say the words.  Now we are free to love each other.  And breathe.

Dear Neglected Blog…

My book, The Uncomfortable Confessions of a Preacher’s Kid, is coming along, slowly but surely.  Turns out I had to learn how to write a book first.  Thanks to Cami Ostman and the writers of Memory to Memoir I have gained  invaluable support and feedback on this strange trip.

The recent surge of online truth telling, specifically the #MeToo, #ChurchToo, #RaptureAnxiety and #EmptythePews threads on Twitter have astounded me.  There are so many of us.  PTSD, anxiety and depression abound in the ex-evangelical community.  Seems like a good time to tell my story, even if it’s just another voice in the crowd.

If you have one, please tell yours, too.  One thing I have learned is to give myself permission to write it all down.  Edit later.  But get it out.  There isn’t anything that can’t be faced on the page.  Trauma, like evil, loses its power in the light.

Joy, Love, Peace and Merry Christmas,

Ronna

Tony says…